How Strong Are Your Relationships?
All business analysts are in the relationship business.
It may not have been spelled out in your job description or part of your performance review, but your experience as a business analyst is directly impacted by the strength of your end-user relationships. I'll go as far as saying great relationships cause a great business analyst.
End users are the reason your role exists. They rely on you to translate their needs and requirements into something developers can build, so their life can be easier. So, it stands to reason that you should strive to have amazing connections with the people who matter most. Here is a dozen of my best strategies for building strong relationships with your end users.
Understand Social Styles
It's important to realize that different people have different personalities. So, although it's good to do unto others as you would have them do unto you–that only works for people who have your personality. Take some time to understand different personality types and communicate in ways that are appropriate for your end users' personality style. Myers-Briggs has a well-known typing methodology that's worth exploring; however, my favorite is Social Styles by TRACOM.
Own Your Value and Expertise
Regardless of your own social style, your expertise carries great value for your end users. Be confident and proud of your role in the relationship. You're more than just a note taker; you're an advisor. And although you shouldn’t tell your end users what their requirements are, you are responsible for advising them on the best ways to get them met, given your knowledge of the company's systems.
Systems advice isn't the only advice you can offer; broaden your perspective and learn a lot about a lot (history, geography, science, etc.). Have an opinion on a wide variety of subjects including sports, current events, and the arts. Early in my career I had tunnel vision on my specialty (business intelligence) and a small network of friends. Once I widened my intellectual curiosity, more people took me a lot more seriously.
For instance, I love cooking food, especially Italian. My client at Hitachi Data Systems and I had a good relationship from the start. But we took our relationship to a new level when I learned that she loves Italy and travels there at least once a year. Not only did we spend hours at a time talking about Italian food, but also culture, geography, and history. We still keep in contact, even though we haven’t worked together since 2004.
Don’t be too serious, though–have fun with your job. Cultivate a good sense of humor and make people laugh. This aligns well with cultivating a breadth of knowledge–the best comedians are highly intelligent. Be very careful with ribaldry, though. Risqué or offensive humor might work with the right people in the right situations, but it's unprofessional and it can suddenly backfire in irreparable ways, even if you feel you're just being honest.
And being honest is always the best policy, if the delivery is appropriate. We already discussed the perils of blue comedy, but there are many other inappropriate ways to tell the truth. Instead of focusing on the wrong ways, let's discuss the right way. Always deliver unpleasant news or advice with respect and professionalism. Don't attack or blame. Take the high road and highlight positives to offset the negative.
Pay a Compliment
A well-deserved compliment never hurts, either. When people collect lessons learned, they often focus more on what went wrong than what went right. Don’t make this mistake. It's important to acknowledge and recognize your end users when they do something great. This both reinforces the right behaviors and the relationship. However, don't be obsequious–too much flattery is off-putting.
Another thing that's off-putting is when you're too busy for your end users, so practice being highly available. This can be challenging when you have more than just end users to deal with. Your developers need your time to answer questions about the requirements and your project manager needs your time to understand progress. That said, your end users are your highest priority. Make that very clear to everyone.
Sit and Work Together
One way to demonstrate your commitment to high availability is to physically locate yourself with them. This is a highly effective approach for good collaboration and relationship building, provided it's practical. If you have various end users in different parts of the company, it won't be possible. But even if you have multiple users who are all in the same area, why not join the group?
Meld into One Mind
To take that one step further, you may want to merge with a key end user to solve a vexing problem or attack a daunting task. When I say merge, I mean it in the same spirit as pair programming. Pair programming has a long and controversial history that’s proven it to be a best practice that delivers great results. Why keep this secret confined to developers?
Use Technologyto Collaborate
And why let the developers have all the fun with technology? It's great to bring your end users into the solution space. I've often seen end users take an active interest in database technology. It's quite common for business people to learn about databases and business intelligence while learning their own craft. Great news for you! Leverage collaboration platforms like Toad Business Intelligence Central to make them part of the solution.
Work Hard and Play Hard
Collaboration doesn't have to be limited to the office; take some time to strengthen your relationship away from the keyboards and monitors. Formal team building is a good place to start. Organized events provide a safe environment for you to bond with your end users.
When I was leading the change management effort on a recent project for Chevron, we arranged a night of fun during a grueling week-long workshop that everybody was flying in to attend. After the end of the second day, we drove to a restaurant / bocce ball court for some friendly competition and great meal. It was the highlight of the whole event.
Once the relationship is established and you find some common interests, spend some time after hours to turn your relationship into a real friendship. I still go out with client friends that I worked with over 20 years ago.
Watch Out for Taboos
So far, we've covered some terrific ground on relationship building and I'd be remiss if I didn't warn about a few taboos. Regardless of the stage of your relationship, there are three subjects that you should really, really be cautious of: sex, religion, and politics. Like ribaldry, these areas are a real gamble and if that gamble doesn't pay out, you'll likely damage the relationship for good. My best advice is to steer clear of all three. But if you must tread–tread carefully.
The quality of your relationships can make or break your professional experience as a business analyst. I've worked for many people I liked and a few I didn't. The former's much better for all parties involved. I've shared with you some of my best strategies for building and maintaining strong relationships with your end users. Take some or all of them into consideration, especially the ones that seem immediately practical. Then start taking care of the people who matter most–and they'll start taking care of you.